A Tupac Sighting in Africa

As a rule, I’m bored with discussions of race relations in America and related history. This isn’t because I don’t consider the topic to be an important and ultimately defining subject in any review of U.S. society. It’s just that from my point of view the problems always get framed in the most irrelevant terms imaginable — how a talk-show host defamed a certain ethnic group, why an offhand remark made by a politician betrays racial insensitivity. Such obvious red herrings. You want to fix racial inequity in this country, focus 100 percent on education. Overhaul the school system to legitimately give all groups equal access to equally funded schools and stop wasting time griping about racist jokes and the ten percent of prejudiced Neanderthals who will always be with us and you’ll get to the mountaintop a lot faster.

I’m not a bullhead about this. I’m willing to admit, as with most issues, to a lot of gray territory, and to the limitations of my typically reductive logic. I’m also willing to concede points to those more familiar with the tribulations of living in a racially divided world, particularly to any non-white person in this country. Still, after a couple decades of discussion, debate, and spittle-filled shouting matches, this pretty much sums up my core position: It’s all about education; if you want to change racial discrimination, discussion of any other point is a waste of time.

That said, it’s pretty much impossible to tool around Africa and not reflect on all aspects of the history of African-Americans. It sounds naïve, I know, but it’s startling to travel across the continent and see so many American faces. It really brings history into clear and unsettling focus to come face to face with the people whose ancestors we know primarily as terrible statistics from history books and disturbing cinematic recreations of the slave trade. I spent November in South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and was consistently moved by the familiarity of the people and the instant “American” kinship we shared. In a weird way, this often made me feel at home in a very foreign place.

In Botswana, I came across a guy in a market who bore an absolutely uncanny resemblance to the late rapper Tupac Shakur. (Jay-Z and Kanye are amazing, but for me, hip hop as art form begins with the Sugar Hill Gang and ends with Tupac, so I’m sort of partial to this story). I was so taken with the similarity that I actually followed the guy around for a few minutes, trying to get in position to snap a surreptitious photo or two to show to friends back home. Seriously, you could start an entire “Tupac lives” cottage industry with a couple pictures of this dude. Alas, the guy never emerged from the crowd near the fresh goat section, and I felt too awkward to approach him with my bizarre request for a photo.

All of this felt a little impolitic; it’s strange to wonder if a future rapper’s people had been snatched from the very acre of earth you’re vacationing on. Nevertheless, I mentioned the Tupac doppelganger to Ace, the philosophical, 26-year-old African I was temporarily traveling with. It turned out Ace was also a huge fan of the man he referred to in reverential tones as “the late, great legend.”

“There was also a guy at my school, near here, who looked so much like the late, great legend that we only called him ‘Tupac,’” Ace told me. “His real name was discarded. He became known as Tupac, even to his parents. So maybe those infamous genes can be traced to this place.”

It’s staggering to stand in a barren landscape still dotted with circular mud huts and grass roofs and ponder the fantastic historic and generational calamity that led from an unfortunate bushman or woman taken away from southern Africa, to the likeness of a martyr sanctified on T-shirts around the planet. Not to mention the immortal lyric, “Even as a crack fiend, mama, you always was a black queen, mama.”

« My Favorite Souvenir From Africa

A "Smile" Soundtrack »